Most Belgians and expats in Brussels have one important thing in common: they love criticizing the nation’s capital. They do not consider Brussels hip; they find it dirty, public transport is not efficient, it lacks a special character, etc. I have to admit that I share this general feeling about Brussels: it is not a city one falls in love with instantly. It does not sweep you off your feet by its overall beauty or grandness and tends to be more of a hodgepodge of different architectural styles and tends to be overly crowded with cars vying for every parking spot, whether it truly exists or not. Still this does not mean that there is not a lot to love in this city. For example, one of Brussels’ treasures is its large number of Art Nouveau houses, a remnant of the city’s most recent golden age.
Last Sunday (12 March 2017), I attended the Brussels Art Nouveau and Art Deco festival (BANAD), which this year takes places during the weekends between the 11th and 26th of March. During this annual event, you can take guided tours of Art Nouveau and Art Deco interiors that are not normally open to the public, guided tours on foot, by bicycle and by coach, concerts, exhibitions, cultural events etc.
Art Nouveau, a lavish and opulent “total” art style that encompasses architecture, interior design, and decorative art, only lasted for a brief period of time from the late 19th century to the start of the First World War. The style, which draws its inspiration from natural forms and structures, such as plants and flowers, is also characterized by the use of cast iron, not only as a framework, but also serving a decorative purpose. Iron was for example used for balustrades, decorative pillars, and served as frames for colored glass. Worldwide, some of the most famous names associated with the style are architect Mikhail Eisenstein and illustrator Alphonse Mucha. In Brussels, the most well known Art Nouveau architects are Henry Van De Velde and Victor Horta (1961-1947). On the first beautiful sunny Sunday of 2017, we were able to squeeze in three visits during the BANAD festival: the Queen Elisabeth Music Chapel (which is actually an Art Deco Building) in Waterloo, and two buildings by Victor Horta: his Tassel Mansion and Max Haller Mansion.
An interesting fact I learned at the festival is why Art Nouveau only lasted for such a short period in time. One of the guides explained to us that building an Art Nouveau house was very expensive, as the buildings were generally designed according to the owner’s specific taste, relied a lot of on craftsmanship (including sculptures, glass producers, and mosaic layers), and used a lot of expensive materials such as marble. This movement could therefore only flourish in very wealthy thriving areas, such as Brussels and Riga (affectionately dubbed the Art Nouveau capital of the North). In the late nineteenth and early twentieth century, Belgium was experiencing an economic boom. In that period, it was the second most industrialized country after England and one of the world’s richest nations. Belgium however suffered heavily during World War One and this lack of resources was also reflected in the abandonment of Art Nouveau, although some claim Art Nouveau’s decline had already started in between 1905-1910 and had been replaced by Art Deco and modernism.
My first visit of the day was actually not an Art Nouveau, but an Art Deco building: the Queen Elisabeth Music Chapel in Argenteuil, designed by Yvan Renchon and constructed in 1939. In the past the building served as a home for a dozen musicians and composers and continues to do so to this day. In fact, in 2015 the chapel opened a new modern wing to accommodate more musicians and provide more comfortable accomodations. Although we were mainly there for the architecture and interior design, the tour focussed mostly on the music academy and more specifically the famous Queen Elisabeth competition. Each year, the finalist of the competition are secluded in the music chapel, where they practice their piece without interacting with any of their competitors who are also staying in the building; not even for meals.
During the tour, the guide said very little about the building and its place in Belgian architectural history, a topic the guide also did not seem very familiar with. Still, We were shown very beautiful, well preserved rooms such as the office, the dining room, and the performance room. The student suites on the building’s second floor in the old building, which are currently still in use, also seem to still have some of the original furniture from the 1940s, but are better labeled as “old” rather than “antique”. The most beautiful part of the building is its exterior with in the background the woods of Argenteuil near Waterloo. Although it is directly next to the highway these days, one can easily imagine how it must have been a peaceful, quiet, inspirational place when it was first constructed.
After our brief visit to Argenteuil, I made the 15 minute drive to the center of Brussels where the two Horta mansions are located. More specifically, they can be found around the Avenue Louise in Elsene, one of Brussels’ richer neighborhoods. The first house, the Tassel Mansion (1894), was Horta’s first ever true Art Nouveau building and is currently unoccupied. If you are interested, you can rent it for a mere 6,000 Euros per month (I am not receiving any commission on this free advertisement). In fact, the for rent sign on the facade was truly an eyesore, destroying pretty much every picture I wanted to take of the exterior.
When entering the building through the coat room, it does not give the feeling of walking into a building from the not so distant past. Instead, it feels more like entering a different world of earthy colors (yellow, read, brown, green), where every little thing somehow blends into the whole: the lamps, pillars, stairs, and built-in furniture are all part of the design concept. Horta paid a lot of attention to natural light which can flow in through the various large windows and sky lights and reach further into the room because of the high ceilings and the glass doors separating the spaces.
One of the strong points of the visit was our guide. She was extremely knowledgable which was a significant added value. She told us more about Emile Tassel, the scientist-professor for whom the building was designed, and how his wishes were incorporated into the design, such as leaving a hole in the cast iron balustrade to attach the lens of a slide show projector, or the comfortable smoking room above the entrance. Sometimes however, her strong French accent provided some comical situations. At one point, she said something which I understood as: “the balustrade is an ashtray.” I racked my mind trying to figure out how this was possible as I did not find an area to leave one’s ashes-keeping in mind that Art Nouveau architects indeed provide complete interiors-until someone noticed the pensive look in my eyes. She immediately understood the confusion: “She meant the balustrade is made of Ash Tree.” This however was just a minor side note in what was a great visit to a beautiful historic building.
After having stopped for a bite to eat, we walked about 300 meters up the Avenue Louise with its eclectic mix of office buildings from different eras and its hideous parking lots separating the two car lanes, to the Max Hallet Mansion (1905). This house was built by Horta about a decade after the Tassel Mansion, during what is considered Horta’s mature period (when some argue he lost his inspiration). The house is currently still inhabited by Michel Gilbert, a rich Horta enthusiast, who apparently owns a number of other Horta houses in and around Brussels. Gilbert himself led the restoration of the Hallet Mansion’s hallway and winter garden to its original condition and occasionally allows people to visit it (under the strict conditions that they do not touch anything and wear blue plastic socks over their shoes). One of the things that according to the guide significantly complicated the renovations was that the previous owner, who lived in the house for almost half a century, smoked like a chimney, causing a layer of soot to coat the walls.
As opposed to many Art Nouveau buildings, there is a sharp contrast between the buidling’s sober, almost boring facade, which blends in seamlessly with the other soulless grey buildings in the neighborhood, and the lavish, extravagant interior, causing the inside to pop out even more. As was the case with the Tassel Mansion, you once again step into a different world when entering the building through what used to be the carriageway into a well-lit large open space around which the house is constructed. What stood out in this house was the gorgeous winter garden, created especially for Max Hallet’s wife Lucy, who according to the guide was passionate about her flowers and plants, but like most people of that period did not enjoy being in her own outside garden that much. This is why Horta had even foreseen a special sink near the winter garden to take rain water from the cistern on the roof for her flowers, so she would not have to go outside to get it. During our visit, the large glass windows lit up the room in the different shades, according to the glass through which the rays were filtered. If we are to believe the guide, the colored glass supposedly changes the overall color of the room, depending on the amount of sun and the time of day. This was not something we were able to experience first hand.
What was also striking about the Max Hallet house is that it is actually currently still occupied and that we were allowed to see the Gilbert family’s sitting room through the glass doors and could walk through the dining room and a second sitting room on our way to the exit. Here the guide told us more about the silk wallpaper that used to grace the walls and the use of gas to heat the original fireplace, which was rare during the early 20th century. What was most interesting to me was how the modern furniture and artwork seemed to match the Art Nouveau style perfectly, creating a harmonious interior.
I once read somewhere that you either love Art Nouveau or you hate it; that there is no in between. Given that it is indeed a complete style where everything fits together, this makes sense. For people who love this particular style of architecture and design, Brussels’ Art Nouveau heritage is a real treat and for them the BANAD festival is the perfect opportunity to see some buildings and designs that are otherwise not accessible to the public. Even if you are not a fan of Art Nouveau, the festival does provide an opportunity to see Brussels when it was at its peak, even if you do not appreciate what they did with their money.